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Divine Fury: A History of Genius Hardcover – October 22, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The word genius used to be reserved for exceptional individuals on the order of Albert Einstein but is now used so casually that we may all have our 15 minutes of genius, according to McMahon. He traces the origins of the concept of genius to religious notions about the intermediation between individuals and God, with angels and demons seen as the source of genius delivered from on high—or low. With the Reformation came new perspectives on nature versus nurture, and the culture of genius emerged as part of a reaction to a broader concept that God and angels are not directing every minute of human life. Ever since Socrates, philosophy, religion, and psychology have debated the source of genius, the timeless struggle to determine where the divine leaves off and the human begins. McMahon details scores of geniuses among poets, artists, philosophers, military strategists, scientists, industrialists, and tyrants as the concept of genius has been democratized. He raises important questions about the nature of genius and whether geniuses can and should be identified and lauded beyond the rest. A sweeping, completely engaging look at a subject that has fascinated humans through the ages. --Vanessa Bush


New York Times Book Review
“[An] erudite and engaging history of genius…McMahon is refreshingly unafraid to embrace the mythic dimension of his subject as part of its true importance, an approach that offers to deepen, not undermine, our appreciation of genius.”

Wall Street Journal
“A deeply researched history of the idea of genius in the Western world.”

New York Review of Books
“A rich intriguing story.”

“An engaging survey of the history of genius in European culture…McMahon tells the history of genius with verve, wit and insight, and his book is a pleasure to read.... Divine Fury makes innumerable fascinating connections and weaves many threads into a coherent narrative spanning 2,500 years. No theoretical statement could vindicate a revived history of ideas so well as this exemplary work…a superb book that judiciously blends celebrations of genius with cautionary tales.”

Daily Beast
“A fascinating account of the evolution of the idea of genius in Western culture from its divine origins in ancient Greece and Rome to the modern culture of celebrity.”

“Offers an ambitious survey of genius and geniuses.... McMahon uncovers a rich metaphysical tradition associated with genius, intriguing linguistic connections, and a fascinating historical response to genius.... McMahon highlights a phenomenon that invites discussion.... Recommended.”

Buffalo News
“An exceptional work of accessibly written scholarship that seems poised to usher the history of ideas back into vogue.... A book that is bound to intrigue anyone interested in the concept of genius, especially today when it seems that anyone and everyone can be one.”

Commentary Magazine
“A work at once erudite and intellectually penetrating and immensely readable.”

Brain Pickings
“A fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.... Divine Fury is excellent in its entirety.”

“This absorbing history of ideas about genius includes genius's 'intimate connection to the divine,' as well as the social construction of genius. From the ancients to today, every possible aspect of this fascinating topic is explored.... It’s a book for scholars, certainly, but also for anyone wanting to get behind and beyond the way genius is discussed in popular media.”

Booklist, starred review
“A sweeping, completely engaging look at a subject that has fascinated humans through the ages."

Library Journal
“There have been many studies of the idea of genius, but a signal virtue of this new account is its comprehensiveness…[An]exceptional intellectual history…A gem of a book to be widely read by scholars in many fields, not just in the history of ideas.”

Publishers Weekly
“McMahon delivers a comprehensive look at the concept of genius in all its philosophical glory…Covering topics from science to the arts to philosophy, the book offers a densely packed, earnest look at how genius has been viewed throughout the centuries.”

Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
“As Darrin McMahon shows, the genius is the god among men—providing one of the last connections to the transcendent that our common secular culture retains, and setting up a struggle between our desire for exceptional beings and our leveling egalitarianism. In its absorbing and remarkable way, Divine Fury educates and entertains, vindicating the importance of grand history told over the long term.”

Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness
“Darrin McMahon has become one of the world’s greatest historians of ideas. His analysis of genius is eye-opening and original, his insights are deep and fresh, and his prose is sparkling and subtle. Prepare to be blown away.”

Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
“Darrin McMahon has given us all we could want in an intellectual history of genius—I especially liked his sharp observations on the cult of Michelangelo and his droller ones on Einstein—in prose that is a delight to read for its elegance and lucidity.”

Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights
“This elegant and probing book is about much more than genius—it is about why we think of ourselves as we do. Demons, saints, angels, poets, physicists, and generals parade through these pages, offering the reader an extraordinary series of insights into the modern tension between the cult of celebrity and a deepening suspicion of greatness.”

Mark Lilla, author of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
“What an illuminating book Darrin McMahon has given us. By tracing the history of a seemingly simple idea—that of the individual genius—he sheds a bright and sometimes disturbing light on how we think about ourselves and our societies today. Drawing artfully on a wide range of philosophical, religious, artistic, and scientific material, McMahon forces us to ask: why are we so eager to identify geniuses? What do we expect from them, and why? After reading his compelling story you may never use the term ‘genius’ again.”

Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos
“It is rare to find an historian who writes in a style both so sure-footed and so light, and with such joy in the telling of a tale. In his engaging new book Darrin McMahon takes us on an intellectual adventure, tracing the transformation of the idea of genius as it shed its sacred garments to become the common property of our own democratic age. Ranging with ease across history—from the poets of Romanticism to the tyrants of the twentieth-century, from Einstein to the 'IQ Test,' and from Benjamin Franklin to the “wiz-kid” inventors of silicon valley—McMahon invites us to consider a central paradox of our time: If anyone can be a genius, then perhaps no one is.”

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (October 22, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465003257
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465003259
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #218,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Nancy Famolari on October 22, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Philosophers have been fascinated by what makes a great man. Plato told of Scorates daimon that inspired him. In the Renaissance, inspiration came from God. The cult of genius in Europe in the early 20th century led to the rise of Hitler. Today IQ tests are used to identify genius, but then perhaps everyone has a genius in some area.

Devine Fury charts the changes in the definition of genius from Plato through Terman. The book is packed with information with chapters devoted to the Greeks, the Christianity, the moderns, the romantics, geniology, or how to detect genius, the religion of genius, and today's take on everyone's genius.

I found the book very readable, but I have to admit it helps to have at least a passing acquaintance with the major philosophers. The book is packed the quotations illustrating the philosophical theory under discussion. There are also a myriad of pictures giving the artists' conception of genius. I think it's interesting that genius originally was applied to the arts and only lately became the province of scientists and politicians.

I highly recommend this book if you're interested in the history of genius. I found it fascinating to trace the thoughts about what constitutes genius and whether it resides inside or outside the person, as divine inspiration from the gods or God. It's not an easy book, but it's well worth reading.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Sinohey TOP 500 REVIEWER on January 9, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Nowadays, in the age of media created cult of celebrity worship, the moniker of genius is freely and haphazardly bandied about. It is synonymous with overhyped fame and its mantle is often bestowed upon self-promoting media personalities, on which it hangs like a bad suit. It would be funny if it were not pathetic to behold.
Recent editions of Rolling Stone and Time magazines have expounded superlatives on the genius of some rappers, late night talk-show hosts, movie actors, comedians, vapid reality-show stars and barely articulate talking heads. These "luminaries" were each given much more coverage and ink than the present and past genuine intellectual giants, such a Mozart or Edison.

Darrin McMahon, the author of Divine Fury, a well researched and written book about the concept of "genius" in the Western world, seems to believe that the current lowering of standards and leveling egalitarianism is not necessarily bad, for "it saves us from looking for Gods among men."

The idea of genius has gone through several metamorphoses through the ages. It was first introduced by the Roman writer Plautus and meant to convey "power and allure. The power to create.The power to divine the secrets of the universe."
In Ancient Greece, Socrates believed that a spirit (daimonion) took control of his mind and inspired him. The Romans shared the same belief and celebrated with the annual ritual of "festum geniale" honoring their guardian spirit (gay nius) with mirth and sacrifices. This is the precursor of our modern birthday celebration.
Christianity co-opted these spirits into the religion, as angels and demons (daimonia) and later on, as saints, intercessors between them and God.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Derek Murphy on May 16, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I love this book - it helps me to understand our contemporary views on creativity, passion and work, genius and celebrity. It gives an ideological background to the rise of celebrity figures in the past 2 centuries, and the self-production and justification through genius at a time when justification through religion (chosen by God) was viewed as outdated and feeble minded. It brings attention to the tension between the cult of genius, where a truly gifted person is one in 10,000; and today's democratic/communist mantra that we can all be geniuses if we just believe.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a long book, perhaps longer than what most people will be looking for on this topic. And the topic isn't the concept of genius, or the history of geniuses, but rather the history of the concept of genius, primarily in the Western world.

We learn that the concept of genius emerged at least as far back as the ancient world, and has continued to evolve since then. The impetus for the concept has always been trying to account for why some people stand out so much in their superior abilities in various domains, and what the limits of those abilities might be. Speculations in this regard have elicited a range of thoughts and feelings among the masses: wonder, inspiration, hope, and sometimes also fear when genius was in the domains of politics or warfare (eg, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Lenin, and Hitler).

Regarding the source of genius, earlier thinking was that it came from outside the person, from some kind of spiritual or divine source which guided the genius, or even used the genius as a mere vessel. This itself could elicit fear, since such agencies could be malevolent in some cases (hence the 'evil genius'). As we moved into more modern times through the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic period, with spiritual and religious thinking coming more into question, the source of genius became more mysterious for some, and for others became grounded in pantheistic 'Nature' inspiring or acting through the genius. Then with the rise of biology in the mid 1800s, we saw genius increasingly rooted in the anatomy and then physiology of the brain, with the associated question of nature versus nurture, and eventually a shift towards focusing on a continuum of intelligence levels rather than a distinct category of genius.
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